More than fifty years ago, while honeymooning in New Orleans, the owner of the honeymoon apartment left Billie Landry and her husband a pair of frozen rib-eyes as a wedding gift. He envisioned the steaks nicely seared on the grill.
She declared, “We can’t afford grilled steaks!” with the practicality of a frugal newlywed, figuring out ways to stretch the two choice cuts of beef beyond one meal.
As the daughter of a butcher, Landry appreciated rib-eye as one of the more expensive cuts of beef, as the tender rib makes up only about 10% of the total meat yield of the cow. This fatty, flavorful piece of meat delivers stand-alone goodness — it does not need a sauce, unless of course you want to draw out this goodness over a few meals.
Landry’s practicality prevailed.
She transformed the first rib-eye into two meals’ worth of a brown gravy served over rice. Later, honeymoon rib-eye number two inspired what would eventually become a family favorite — rib-eye spaghetti, bite-sized pieces of rib-eye in a red tomato gravy made with a roux and served over spaghetti.
“My daughter Jeri has embraced this meal and sends it often to families in times of stress: a death or illness in the family, a new baby, house moving, loss of power, or a flooded home,” Landry said.
I was with Landry and her daughter Jeri Theunissen as they prepared a pot of rib-eye spaghetti in her colorful kitchen in Erath, a maximalist’s delight with art on the walls and avocado green accents. The words, “coush coush” are emblazoned over her stovetop — a reference to another of her favorite recipes, one that has been printed in John Folse’s “Something Old & Something New,” a collection of Cajun and Creole home cooks’ recipes.
Mother and daughter bantered back and forth about the points of variation that have developed in the rib-eye spaghetti recipe as it has passed from one generation to the next. Theunissen likes to use thin rib-eyes.
“They’re more economical,” she said, “and I let my sauce cook for a long time, so the pieces end up real tender in the end.”
Landry uses thick rib-eyes and has started leaving them rare in the browning process, putting them in the sauce toward the end of the simmering time, just enough to let them cook through. She also adds her celery and bell peppers later, so they retain their form, adding chunkiness to the sauce.
“My family is split on the smooth or chunky gravy. I like it very chunky made with diced and whole tomatoes. When I want to please the smooth half of the family, I use only tomato sauce, except for the Rotel,” Landry said.
Both noted the importance of caramelizing the onions for the sweetness which foils the acidity of the tomatoes. Theunissen recalled her children’s nanny teaching her a trick for when you are out of onions or avoiding them for dietary reasons — place white sugar over medium heat and slowly brown it in the pan.
Landry insists on adding Accent, “It won’t taste as good if you don’t,” she noted with assuredness.
Sold under the brand name Accent, monosodium glutamate (MSG) was developed more than a hundred years ago by a Japanese chemistry professor who isolated the specific substance in the seaweed that Japanese cooks had long been using to bring more umami, or savoriness, to their foods. MSG is no longer derived from seaweed but is made by fermenting carbohydrate sources like sugar cane or molasses. It has gotten a tainted reputation over the years as some have claimed a sensitivity to it.
Having believed the anti-MSG hype myself, I asked Theunissen if it was necessary to the recipe, she gave a shake of her head.
“I’ve never used it,” she said.
Over lunch, both mother and daughter remembered not being allowed in the kitchen when they were growing up.
“My father was a finicky eater, so I suppose my mom didn’t want me messing up,” Billie said as each remembered various ways they learned to cook — from cherished cookbooks, friends and husbands who cook.
I listened and alternated bites between the rib-eye spaghetti and the pineapple slice besprinkled with cheddar cheese Billie recommends serving as a side; the intense savoriness of the rich sauce contrasted with the bright flavor of pineapple.
“I think there are some people born to cook,” Billie concluded — and after sharing a meal with her, I believe she is one of those people.
4-5 Servings; recipe is by Billie Landry
⅓ cup olive oil
2 rib-eye steaks, medium thickness
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons of your favorite light- to medium-brown roux
10-ounce can Rotel tomatoes
14.5-ounce can Italian style stewed tomatoes
28-ounce can tomato sauce or 28-ounce can diced tomatoes (your choice for consistency desired)
½ to 1 green bell pepper
½ cup sliced celery
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
Tony Chachere’s Seasoning to taste
1 teaspoon Accent seasoning
Garlic powder to taste
Salt and black pepper to taste
16-ounce package spaghetti noodles
- Heat ⅓ cup olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat.
- Brown rib-eyes on both sides in hot oil. Meat should be rare. Remove to cool.
- Add onions to the browning oil in the Dutch oven and sauté until soft and brown, approximately ten minutes.
- Stir roux into the onions.
- Add all tomatoes and tomato sauce, if using, to the onion and roux mixture. Simmer until tomatoes start separating from oil, at least an hour.
- Cut rib-eyes into bite-size cubes and add to red gravy. Simmer 15 minutes.
- Add bell pepper, celery, seasonings, and garlic powder about 30 minutes before serving time. Rib-eye pieces should be tender at this point.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Meanwhile cook spaghetti al dente.
- Serve red sauce atop spaghetti noodles with sautéed green beans and canned pineapple slices sprinkled with grated cheddar cheese or Paula Dean’s pineapple casserole. Pairs well with a cabernet.